directed by Deborah Kampmeier
(Hart Sharp, 2003)

Jessie Reynolds (Elisabeth Moss) is a high school student who divides her time between delivering newspapers and emptying large bottles of Jack Daniels into her rather small body.

When she's not doing either of the above, she's trying to attract the attentions of a schoolmate named Shane (Charles Socarides), who'd rather hide out in the back room of the diner where he works and count the daily take, which can't really take as long as he pretends it does, given that the diner staff often outnumbers its patrons.

This small-town dynamic might have gone on forever, with precious few changes, were it not for the defining moment of Virgin, a low-budget indie -- make that a very-low-budget indie -- by first-time writer-director Deborah Kampmeier. In it, Jessie, full of Jack, finds the ever-elusive Shane on the fringes of a local teen dance, where he slips her a Quaalude, she slips into unconsciousness and he slips into her.

Everything might have ended there except for two things. The first you've already figured out: Jessie gets pregnant. But the second you haven't: Jessie wakes up the next morning with no knowledge of having had sex, but absolutely convinced she's pregnant. It seems it's been revealed to her in a dream: God came to her and told her she's with child -- the Christ child, to be exact.

It's a story that doesn't go over well with her sister (Stephanie Gatschet), her parents (Robin Wright Penn and Peter Gerety) or her schoolmates, all of whom seem to attend the only church in town, a conservative Baptist church. Jessie's churchmates are perfectly willing to bet all they own on an immaculate conception and a virgin birth, but not on Jessie's immaculate conception and virgin birth.

It's a fascinating concept, but Kampmeier doesn't stop there. Granted, she takes us through the expected backlash -- her father insists the baby be adopted, her pastor (Christopher Wynkoop) drives her from the church when she refuses to recant in front of the congregation and her schoolmates ridicule and reject her, going so far, in one exceedingly unpleasant scene, as to guarantee she's no virgin.

But there's a less practical side to Virgin, and it's there that Kampmeier and Moss really shine. Something happens to Jessie in her darkest hour that no one can explain -- biblically or otherwise.

For some reason, Jessie is able to understand the unexpressed torments of the people around her -- including her long-suffering mother, who suffers most from her husband's affairs, and a local domestic-abuse victim (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who lives on Jessie's paper route -- and reach them in ways no one else can. The result is that a cast of stereotypes suddenly starts to develop third dimensions, and Virgin finds characters where seemingly there were none.

In this effort, Kampmeier gets a big hand from Wright Penn, the cast's only known performer. Wright Penn adds a note of stability to the proceedings, and the scene in which she and Jessie end up dancing is a joyous surprise in a sea of misery. Moreover, Moss herself is a fascinating performer, low-key to the very end, the image of persistence.

The director also gives herself a hand: if you think you know where this film is going, you're wrong. Love it or hate it, you're not going to guess the ending.

Unfortunately, as in many indies, fascinating concepts and inspired performances often get undone by unavoidable shortcomings.

While Virgin won Hamptons International Film Festival awards for Rising Star and Best Screenwriter and Moss was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead, the film's low, low budget and 21-day shooting schedule take their toll. Shakier even than the handheld camerawork at times are performances by the supporting cast members, especially Sam Riley as Michael, Shane's co-worker and Jessie's sometime suitor, who finds original, if not honorable, ways to capitalize on the young woman's predicament.

Ultimately, Virgin is a mixed bag, but one with a lot of good stuff in it. It's a tale that needs to be told, and, even more, listened to. Even if the listening isn't always easy.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 23 April 2005

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